We don’t like to criticise other music industry sites. Partly because we’re British and polite, and partly because, well, thin ice etc. Our confident prediction in 2007 that Apple was preparing to launch a Yellow Submarine iPod with The Beatles remains unfulfilled.
A recent series of posts on Digital Music News feel like they deserve a response though. Not in an aggressive way to ding a rival, but as a contribution to the debate, and a suggestion that maybe it’s missing the real story.
Here are the posts:
In each case, the line of argument is broadly the same: the artist’s album has been made available on Apple’s iTunes to stream a week before its official release date, making them “Spotify holdouts”.
“Spotify says there’s absolutely no evidence that streaming lowers download sales. Then why are some of the biggest artists in the world still withholding their latest releases from Spotify and other streaming services, right now?” asked the Daft Punk story.
“Even though Spotify insists that streaming has no negative impact on download sales, it’s really hard to prove that. And, in the case of Vampire Weekend, it’s really hard to argue with success,” suggested the Vampire Weekend story.
“This is now the third major artist to withhold a release from Spotify while giving preferential access to iTunes. And, the third major artist in a row to score a number one album release,” noted the QOTSA story.
The problem here is that none of these artists are Spotify holdouts. All three new albums can be streamed on Spotify and its rivals. We whipped up a playlist (right) to show it.
These albums aren’t holdouts in the sense that the last albums from Taylor Swift and Coldplay didn’t appear on streaming services for months after they went on sale, as part of a deliberate windowing strategy.
Nor are they holdouts in the sense of the Black Keys’ last album ‘El Camino’, which has yet to appear on Spotify two years after its release – with the band strongly criticising the streaming model in public interviews. And it’s not like AC/DC, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, whose catalogues have yet to be licensed for streaming.
So what happened with the Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend and Queens of the Stone Age albums? They were exclusive pre-release streams on iTunes: available for up to a week to stream in full before they went on sale as CDs and downloads, and appeared on streaming services (note: Vampire Weekend’s LP took two weeks to appear as a stream).
If not being available as a pre-release stream counts as a holdout, then these albums were Rdio, Deezer and Rhapsody holdouts. Also Amazon and 7digital holdouts, and HMV, Tesco and WalMart holdouts.
They withheld the album from everyone except iTunes for that week.
Focusing the debate on Spotify risks appearing like a grudge against that particular company – something Digital Music News has tackled head-on before. “What you think is hate, is actually my decision not to be a cheerleader for this company,” wrote editor Paul Resnikoff in a response to a commenter on the site.
“Instead, I’ve taken a very critical look at this company’s financials, their very questionable artist payout structures, their incredibly opaque and non-transparent accounting structures, and the potentially very perverse interests of the major stakeholders involved… So, hate? If that’s the opposite of blind, rah-rah cheerleading, then I’m guilty as charged. Otherwise, I’m delivering tough coverage that my readers want.”
Without adopting a rah-rah cheerleading position, what’s frustrating about the ‘[Artist X], a Spotify holdout, is successful’ format is that it’s only partly addressing the more interesting story here, which is how labels are deciding where to make pre-release streams of new albums available to fans.
Apple is ramping up noticeably in this area, as those Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend and Queens of the Stone Age deals show (as well as David Bowie, Justin Timberlake and others before them). Amazon is starting to do it too – with Sigur Ros’ new album in the US, for example.
Media outlets are also on the pre-release bandwagon: Pitchfork, The Guardian, NPR and others. Spotify and its streaming rivals aren’t averse to a pre-release stream either, and you’ve also got Pandora’s recently-launched Pandora Premieres streaming radio station, which focuses on pre-release albums.
Some artists do it themselves on their own websites or bespoke sites created to promote a particular album. The XX’s innovative start-with-one-fan campaign was a great example last year, and we like Sigur Ros’ new site that’s encouraging fans to stream the new album AND give feedback. The fact that this sits alongside the Amazon promotion shows that pre-release streams aren’t always exclusive.
The story here isn’t about labels and artists holding out on Spotify. It’s about the pre-release stream being an established – even essential – part of album marketing campaigns, and about there being greater choice for labels than ever about how to do it, and with which partners.
Apple has huge clout here: it can tie pre-releases to pre-orders of albums on iTunes as downloads. Digital Music News is right to point to the chart success of Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend and QOTSA in this regard: iTunes pre-release + pre-order button is currently looking like a powerful combination.
Yet – and this is a really big point – a combination that seems to be complemented by day-one availability of albums on the streaming service, not cannibalised by it.
There are some chewy issues to think about here. Labels would be foolish to turn down a prominent iTunes pre-release stream, but are they also worried that if they hand a pre-release exclusive to Spotify or another rival service, Apple will punish them in terms of iTunes promotion post-release?
Has Apple encouraged that in any way? And what might the impact be of its iTunes Radio service later this year, which is promising its own pre-release exclusives on big albums? There’s plenty for journalists to dig into, even if people are often unwilling to talk on the record (yes, we’ve tried).
But we’re talking pre-releases, not holdouts, which in turn enables us to treat real holdouts separately, examining the strategy behind the Taylor Swift and Coldplay albums’ several-month windows, exploring the criticism of the streaming model by artists like the Black Keys, and pondering what might convince the Beatles and AC/DC to license their catalogues for streaming.
Pre-release streams and genuine holdouts are two separate issues, in short, and pointing out that difference doesn’t make you a cheerleader for Spotify and its kin.
If anything, the less sensationalist you are when covering the distribution and marketing strategies around big albums in the modern music industry, the more rigorously you can scrutinise the business models of the streaming services, and what their growth means for artists and rightsholders.